Apple growers in New York, and in the northeastern quadrant of the United States generally, are moving toward higher production of fresh market varieties grown in more expensive high-density orchards.
Some observers think New York’s average annual production could move up 50 percent, from 30 million bushels a year to 45 million or more. Michigan’s average could also move up, from 24 million bushels to 35 million or so. New York and Michigan are the two largest apple-producing states after Washington.
Most of the additional production will be high-value fresh market varieties, and those states’ traditional balance could shift from 60:40 apples for processing to 60:40 apples for fresh market.
Fresh markets are more difficult to serve; there is just no tolerance for less-than-perfect fruit. In processing, you can peel away imperfection or chop it up into applesauce. It costs more to produce fresh-market apples, so while less perfect fruit finds a home in processing, it is not the market of choice.
It is also important to faithfully serve your customers. Erratic year-to-year production damages marketing relationships. Growers in both New York and Michigan are working hard this year to win back accounts they could not serve after freezes decimated apple output last year.
To make sure growers produce the kind of fruit that results in a high packout of Extra Fancy apples every year, Cornell University horticulturists organized the Eastern Apple Precision Orchard Management Summit last winter. More than 200 growers gathered for two days of seminars and discussion.
One of the topics was management of risk from hail, frost, sunburn, and deer.
As ill luck would have it, growers are moving toward fresh market as Mother Nature struggles to push more apples in the opposite direction. Hail, frost, and sunburn are all expected to become worse problems across the Northeast in the future. The reason, says Mike Fargione, extension educator at Cornell University’s Hudson Laboratory, is the changing climate.
In apple production, hail has always been a greater problem farther south. North Carolina is notorious for hail damage, and the southern region of New York—the Hudson Valley—suffers more hail damage than the northern and western New York production regions. “In 2000, hail damage in New York’s Hudson Valley region was estimated to exceed two million affected bushels on over 7,000 acres,” Fargione said.
As the climate warms, southern conditions move north. “Increases in hail damage can be expected if predicted increases in extreme precipitation events come to pass,” he said.
More frost events can be expected if predicted milder winters and changes in the growing season come to pass, Fargione said.
The prediction is, apples will come out of dormancy earlier and earlier as the climate warms, moving bloom out of May and back into April, but the occurrence of spring freezes will not decrease. Thus trees will be exposed to more freeze risk during their most vulnerable period, not less.
Crop losses from freezes cause economic damage in many ways—direct loss of income and market disruption, excessive vegetative growth that comes with a low cropload, potential biennial bearing, the need to manage the trees and crop differently after spring freezes. Crop insurance can provide a partial safety net for income loss, but the other effects can only be avoided by effective frost prevention.
Sunburn damage is more significant on open, high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstocks because of their higher percentage of greater-exposed fruit, Fargione said.
“Until recently, sunburn has been thought of as a problem primarily in hot, dry climates like Australia or Washington State, where damage levels are reported to reach or exceed levels of 10 percent where no protective measures are used.”
Managing the risk
Cornell horticulturist Dr. Terence Robinson envisions New York and other northeastern growers adopting practices that are being used in other production areas but that, in the past, were not needed.
Many of these practices involve high-cost installations, such as overhead cooling systems for sunburn prevention or nets for hail protection. But when high-value crops are at stake, these large investments can be paid for in one year where tragedy is prevented.
“With the rather large investments tied up in new high-density orchards, it is an essential business practice to purchase crop insurance for protection against losses from hail and frost,” he said.
“The U.S. apple industry has the benefit of strong government support for crop insurance against hail and other risks with a 60 percent subsidy of the crop insurance premiums,” he said. “We believe that every grower should invest in crop insurance to manage risk. The cost of the premium should be considered an essential business expense for precision orchard management.”
Still, crop insurance alone won’t manage some kinds of risk. The loss or damage to a high-value variety like Honeycrisp or some of the new club varieties is not fully compensated by crop insurance, he said. Moreover, if a volume of fruit is lost due to frost or hail, the entire marketing program for a club variety can be jeopardized.
“Hail nets are not common in the United States due to our strong crop insurance program,” he said, “but in many other parts of the world they are very common.”
Hail nets could prove more economical if installed at the time the orchard is planted, so that posts and cable that support the nets are also used in the trellis, he said.
Even with a cost of $7,500 an acre for a hail net, the cost would be recouped in one year if an acre of Honeycrisp—containing a thousand $30 bushels of apples—were saved. Crop insurance would pay back only half that amount, leaving $15,000 in net loss that could be covered by the hail net system.
Hail net also provides an every-year payback by reducing light intensity by 15 to 20 percent and thus reducing the risk of sunburn.
“Historically, sunburn has been a minor problem for apple growers in the East,” Robinson said. “It seems to be a growing problem with hotter summers, especially in the Hudson Valley. In several of the last ten years, high temperatures in late August have resulted in significant sunburn damage on Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Cortland, and other varieties.”
Overtree cooling with microsprinklers is commonly used in the West, Robinson said, and they are turned on automatically when temperatures reach 95˚F. In the East, light intensity is often less even with high temperatures, because of humid, hazy sky conditions, so automatic controls might need to be based on both light intensity and temperature.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.
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